It started again last week when I found a plastic Iron Man action figure under my son’s bed. Goodness knows how long it has been there since he doesn’t play with his action figures anymore. As I held the figure in my hand, the tears came to my eyes, and it gave me pause for what I have been missing lately. He is ten now, but Iron Man figures used to be our thing. For some reason, no matter how many he owned, I always bought him another whenever he asked. Unfortunately for him, he spent so much time in the car as a little boy that I called him the car seat cowboy. It seemed like I was always driving his big sister here and there, and I felt the guilt every time I strapped him into that seat harness. Once again, he would be going somewhere he didn’t need or want to go to. It felt less painful when I knew he would enjoy playing with his new action figure while in his seat. He loved them so. I loved them, too.
I was always the mom who would play. I played with my kids every day during those years. But these days, no one in my house wants to play anything with me. Back then, our games were always big and imaginative. Sometimes we were wizards running through the house with our wands. Other times, we were diamond miners digging through the pea gravel under the play set looking for the most sparkling rocks we could find to add to our treasure collection. My home office was often filled with baby dolls that were up for adoption and needing a good home. The kids and I always found them the perfect parents after a thorough interview and tour of the orphanage. Playing with both a boy and a girl could be a challenge at times, but my son’s Iron Man figures were always welcome to join the game of Barbie his sister and I had started. The matchbox cars were a bit of a problem. Being a true girlie girl in my own youth, I never had them as a kid, and my son loved them. I assumed you played them like dolls and that every car had a name and a personality and went on adventures. On one occasion when my husband sat down to play cars with our son, he pointed out that I didn’t teach him to play cars correctly, and he wasn’t having that version of match cars. Apparently they were supposed to crash a lot and race repeatedly. Who knew?
As my daughter matured and pulled away from playtime with me, it didn’t affect me the way his departure from play does. When she quit, I knew he was waiting in the wings, and it would finally be his chance to get some one-on-one time with me. For a couple of years, it was just the two of us paired up in a play world filled with samurais, superheroes, and anything that involved a ball. Current reality is just so different. With my daughter, I can shop, chat about girl stuff, paint nails, etc. The conversations come easily. As eager as I am for time with my son, I am saddened to find that connecting through conversation becomes harder and harder. He doesn’t want to talk much. He has one speed – fast. He loves being outside and running fast and playing sports and playing hard. There was a time I was able to keep up. I can’t attempt to play soccer anymore. With the difference in skill level, it is not fun for either one of us. I quit playing Wiffle Ball two years ago when I took a particularly hard hit to the chest after he swung with all his might. I didn’t even know Wiffle Balls could hurt! That experience keeps me from attempting baseball with him. We were able to run together a few months ago. I was dead tired when we got home after a couple of miles. Barely out of breath, he looked at me and said, “Do you want to do some uphill wind sprints now?” I didn’t know exactly what those were, but I was definitely not interested.
I find myself struggling with ideas for birthday and Christmas gifts. All he really wants is to be outside. He has every type of sports equipment and is completely stocked when it comes to his favorite athletic gear. And, sadly, he does not want toys. The play mom is now without options. I thought I had figured another thing we could do together, but in the last three weeks he has politely said no thanks when asked to join me for a board game. I tried three different times and gave up. I decided I would make special plans for us to go to Dave and Buster’s for video games galore after an early dismissal from school the other day. I put on make up and didn’t even wear yoga pants! This was our big playdate, and I could not wait! The reconnection was finally going to happen! Unfortunately, when I arrived to pick him up from school, another parent came up and sweetly asked if he could play at their house, and he was really excited at the prospect. He chose a friend over me and Dave and Buster’s. That one stung a bit. That was one more opportunity to connect, and it wasn’t going to happen.
The morning I found Iron Man, I sulked most of the day. Interestingly, something unexpected happened that same evening. As I put him to bed that night – a time I cherish – we had an extra long snuggle. With my face in his neck I gave him a little kiss and called him sweet little names and told him I loved him. I then laughed and said, “What I just did is precisely why your dad and sister make fun of us. Well, the haters are gonna hate.” His reply took me by surprise. He looked at me and said, “And lovers are gonna love.” He then grabbed onto me tighter, closed his eyes, and settled into a peaceful smile. Love! That was it! THAT is our thing! A sense of peace I had been missing came over me as it sank in: The snuggles and late night conversations, the way he still reaches for and holds my hand in public, and tiny kisses on the forehead were ours. Those were the connections he wanted from me! And best of all, unlike board games and action figures and tiny cars, he will never outgrow my love. Love, pure and simple, is the best connector of all, and we will have our own special kind forever.